Any good travel guide can provide you with an efficient window into a new city or country. Different foods to taste, behavioral do’s and don’ts, interesting tourist activities, famous sites, navigating transportation, essential phrases in the local language, for example.
This travel guidance is a necessity because it helps you quickly place yourself in a new surrounding and survive. These basics are often important for context, but recently I’ve noticed that it is a few small, trivial things that have provided more wonderment and joy in the discovery. These insignificant things have sparked interesting ideas in my head to a much greater proportion then even the top tourist sites. There is only a short window of time to notice these small things before you’ve adapted to them and then they quietly fade into the background.
Our big world is different in many small ways. At the risk of sounding trite or uncultured, I’ll share with your four examples that have fascinated me to a great proportion, more than I would have imagined, and even helped jump start my creative thinking.
I’ve grown up falling asleep with my head against a rectangular pillow. It might be stuffed with anything from goose feathers to cotton to some man-made material, but the soft stuff inside was always packed into a rectangular shape. Any other shape of pillow would be defined as a decorative item for a couch. When we arrived at our Airbnb in Copenhagen, I was surprised to find square pillows on the bed. They were the same in every way (i.e. pillow case and stuffings) except they were square. I thought this was just an anomaly, but so far four of the places we’ve stayed since have had square pillows. Also, the comforters have been the size of a single person instead of the size of the bed. Both of these bedding differences kept my mind buzzing – analyzing the pros and cons. A single sized comforter means I don’t need to play tug of war with my husband when he steals the covers. But the single comforter makes it less fun to snuggle under one large blanket; when two people are centered under two small comforters someone is left exposed under a gap. And the square pillow–is this the most optimum shape of a pillow for sleeping? A square beats a rectangle in that it uses less resources to create and to wash. But I can’t wrap my arms around the square; it is really just sized for my head. A rectangle is better when two heads need to use it, but at that point two squares would work just as well.
2. Graphics that represent special seating sections
I enjoy the challenge of navigating the local public transportation system in new places we visit. Even in the best systems in the world, like London or Singapore, nothing feels intuitive when you first tackle it, but in a few days you are navigating like a local. What I find most interesting are the infographics used throughout public transport and especially the ones that represent special seating areas. Generally, the male / female symbols used for bathrooms are pretty similar no matter what country you’re in, but the symbols for the elderly, those with a handicap, a pregnant woman or someone with a small child are much more diverse in their design. Some are overly simplified making it difficult to tell what they are. Some are overly detailed, like the person depicted with visible cleavage in the Vienna underground. I also find it interesting to see if the images are depicted with or without gender. Is the person shown with child always a female? Not so in Vienna; the image rotates between a male and female. What details are used or not used to make the form seem human? Hair or no hair? Glasses or facial features? Or are they just sticks and a round circle?
3. Toilet paper holders
The benign bathroom is another source for wonder. My absolute favorite discovery so far is an S-shaped toiler paper holder. Think of an S shape with the start of the S facing the wall. The top of the S holds the important-only-when-you-need-it spare role of paper. The bottom of the S opens out towards you with the role perfectly nestled there. It looks like it will fall out when you pull the sheets, but it doesn’t. It’s the simplest design I’ve ever seen for holding toilet paper. In the house I grew up in, we had this terribly annoying plastic spring-compressed tube that you would slide into the center of the cardboard tube and then compress it to fit within a very permanent ceramic holder that stuck out from the wall. This design meant that you would frequently fling the spring holder across the bathroom during a time when your pants were around your ankles.
4. Crosswalk signs:
Similar to how types of people are symbolized in graphics, I’m also amused and interested in the variety of symbols used on electronic light-up crosswalk signs. (With the kids, we used to refer to them as green man/red man signs.) Taiwan has long been my favorite because a green walking figure walks faster as time runs out to cross the street. In some of the signs in Vienna, the walk sign shows two green figures walking and holding hands, with a small heart above them. (Does this means you can only cross the road in pairs with someone you love?) Some of the walk/don’t walk figures have hats (Copenhagen.) Some are shown walking, some merely stand still.
Each of these small and seemingly insignificant things brings me a bit of joy and wonder each time we enter a new place. It tests my assumptions about what normal is, and is a fresh lesson in how information is communicated quickly and simply to a mass audience. Despite many places needing to communicate exactly the same thing, there is such a wide variety and creativity into how this is actually executed. A nice metaphor for life, I think.
How many things in our daily lives have become routine and we overlook how we as individuals could make them better or more interesting? I’m using these examples to help me find a few things everyday that I could re-invent in a different way. Traveling the world to research toilet paper holders is a far underestimated way to do informative product research, even if it makes people giggle.
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